Substance boosts pics to new artistic levels

Though it remains to be seen whether “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” will make a dent in the upcoming Oscars, big-budget actioners appear to be making progress in earning critical respect.

“A lot of times when it comes to action movies, the main thing audiences are shelling out the bucks for are the explosions,” says Dan Lybarger, contributing film critic for the Kansas City Star and efilmcritic.com. “But in ‘TDK’ and ‘Iron Man’ you have these vividly realized characters.”

Both pics struck box office gold, earning $996.8 million and $581.9 million worldwide, respectively, while also winning over critics across the country and raising award hopes for the genre.

“People talk a lot about the prejudice against comedies when it comes to the Oscars, but I think there is just as substantial a prejudice against the action genre,” Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips says. “People sort of look at comedy and action as meat and potato stuff, which is why performances in both genres often get overlooked.”

An action film that does get nods has a certain element of “class,” according to Phillips. Slant Magazine film editor Ed Gonzalez thinks this helps “Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” stand apart from the rest of this year’s action pics, in large part to one-time indie helmers like Christopher Nolan and Jon Favreau taking the reigns of a studio franchises.

“More and more reputable (indie) directors are signing on to direct these types of films,” Gonzalez says. “and they are connecting with the not only the public but also with critics. Beyond ‘TDK’ and ‘Iron Man,’ you have something like ‘Hellboy 2′ directed Guillermo del Toro, who is now going on to direct ‘The Hobbit,’ so we will most likely see more action films do well at the Oscars in the following years.”

Heath Ledger’s work as the Joker is getting the most Oscar buzz, according to Phillips, Lybarger and Gonzalez, who thinks leading man Christian Bale’s chances are slimmer.

“One of the gripes about the film across the board was Bale’s choice of voice for the Batman character,” says Gonzalez.

Robert Downey Jr., in the role of “Iron Man” superhero Tony Stark, has more of a chance according to all three critics, but Downey has his own hurdles.

” ‘TDK’ is an action drama that addresses very contemporary issues that people are grappling with, while “Iron Man” is much easier to categorize (solely) as a comic book film,” Gonzalez says. “It’s much more cartoony than ‘TDK’ and doesn’t span across as many genres, which will make it harder (for Downey to get nominated).”

Only four years ago, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won 11 Oscars, including picture, director and adapted screenplay. Acknowledgment for “Dark Knight” or “Iron Man” would elevate this nod to the fantastical above a level of a fluke, but Phillips is “hopeful.”

“What are the odds of two superheroes movies (in the same year) turning out with personality?” he asks. “Its defies every odd. Hopefully it will encourage people to trust directors and their slightly off-center, slightly unconventional approach when it comes to this genre.”

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